Tuesday 31 January 2012

Another Year

The Summer break is over.  The kids are heading back to school, and so are their teachers.  Just as the February heat hits... go figure.  As usual I start off the new year relaxed and superbly organized, but perfectly well aware that this edenic state won't last much beyond April.  Such is life.

Where to with Otagosh this year?  Well, to be honest, that is in the lap of the gods.  The usual expostulations about fundamentalism, the rag-tag, ratbag remnants of Armstrongism, the evils of Calvinofascism, the sulphur pits of delusional Reformed apologetics, the luddite Lutherans of the Missouri Synod?  Quite possibly.

Then again, it's nice to say something positive once in a while.  With a bit of luck the first book reviews of the year will have nothing to do with religion, let alone any of the above.

But to start the ball rolling, with a grateful nod to Dan who suggested it, here's an interesting take on The Jefferson Bible (as in former US president Thomas Jefferson) by Mitch Horowitz who has edited a major reissued edition.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Evolving Truth

A second quote from Elbert Hubbard (citing Renan).
Renan has said that truth is always rejected when it comes to a [person] for the first time, its evolution being as follows:
  • First we say the thing is rank heresy, and contrary to the Bible.
  • Second, we say the matter really amounts to nothing, anyway.
  • Third, we declare that we always believed it.

Pulling the Bible Inside Out?

Tim Bulkeley posted some interesting thoughts on ways of reading the Bible recently, prompted by someone posing the old chestnut: If Noah lived before the law was revealed to Moses, how did he know how to distinguish “clean” and “unclean” animals?  His response is well worth reading.

Tim suggests that there are two ways of reading the Bible; from the outside (as a scholar or critic must) and from the inside (as we do when we read a novel). Tim writes: "Each basic direction of reading offers several different options or styles. But the basic question facing a reader of any text [is] whether to read as critic or as reader. “Readers” must offer the text a willing suspension of disbelief."

But which is the 'right' choice when it comes to the Bible? When I read high-stakes non-fiction I read critically. If I'm relaxing with a space-opera Sci-Fi novel I joyfully enter the game. It's pretty much either/or. So which is the most appropriate strategy for reading the Bible, or are we supposed to somehow use both simultaneously, and how would that work?

Holy Writ too?
It's pretty clear that most evangelicals prefer a literal approach, which you'd think would be a matter of (using the terms Tim suggests) reading from the outside. After all, how many think of angels and demons in the same way as Klingons and Romulans? The problem, of course, is that we know demons don't cause epilepsy or blindness, regardless of what the healing stories in the Gospels might say. We know, despite sometimes trying to convince ourselves otherwise, that the Garden of Eden story is a myth. Big problem. Try explaining that to any clued-up twelve year-old. If however we reread the passage again as if the Bible is The Lord of the Rings (strangely enough, Tolkien was a part-time Bible translator), we've just ceased being evangelicals.

My best suggestion is that a reading 'from the inside' must be subsequent to one 'from the outside.' An 'outside reading' isn't just for the scholar or critic in an age where knowledge is being increasingly democratised. In other words, if I want to enter the story on its own terms - maybe the second chapter of Genesis - I need to have first honestly engaged (and acknowledged!) the issues around an 'outside reading.' If not, I either end up spouting dogmatic blather (as a fundamentalist does) or mystical blather (for those with more refined literary sensibilities). The trouble is, ignorance provides a higher octane rating for preachers and evangelists, who by and large are not fond of either qualifications or nuance.

But who, apart from a few ivory towered individuals, is going to bother with dubious distinctions and strategies like these anyway? Maybe somebody can help me out here by suggesting another category of literature that requires this stereoscopic (schizoid?) approach?

Thursday 12 January 2012

A Beautiful Old Age

Elbert Hubbard was, in his time, a man of letters in the mold of Mark Twain. Unlike Samuel Clements however, Hubbard was a man of wealth, and there are those who believe his literary fame, forged at the turn of the last century, was more the result of well-oiled self promotion and ego than any substantial talent.

Be that as it may, Hubbard - an uncle by adoption to the loathsome L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology - remains hugely quotable, equally for his common-sense insights and aphorisms as his outrageous opinions. Here's the first in a series of quotes from the sage.
To have a beautiful old age, you must live a beautiful youth, for we ourselves are posterity, and every man is his own ancestor. I am to-day what I am because I was yesterday what I was.
Which echoes the old adage that the child is father to the man (or, to bring it up with the times, the child is parent to the adult.) The quote, which I think is rather nice, comes from his brief but horrendously un-PC essay The Disagreeable Girl, published in Love, Life & Work (1906).

Wednesday 11 January 2012

The Perils of Prophecy

Most readers of this blog will be more familiar with the prophecies of Daniel than those of Nostradamus, but either way, when you prognosticate the future you're bound to come a cropper.

Take the popular volume Millennium Prophecies by some joker named Stephen Skinner. What qualifications Skinner brought to the coffee-table I'm not sure, but the glossy illustrated text is probably never going to grace the reading list for any undergraduate courses. Our expert author banged out this masterpiece back in 1994 for the British publisher Carlton, giving it the subtitle Predictions for the Year 2000 from the World's Greatest Seers and Mystics. I flicked through it at a clearance bookstore and noticed that some bloke named Herbert Armstrong was mentioned, so parted with a dollar to check it out.

This guy makes a huge number of incredibly shonky statements, but what particularly struck me was the section on the 16th century nutcase Nostradamus. Here's a ripe quote:
A book detailing [Princess Diana's] miserable marriage and rejection by Prince Charles stoked the fires of speculation... These events may well be reflected in quatrain VI:74:
She who was cast out will return to reign,
Her enemies found among conspirators.
More than ever will her reign be triumphant.
At three and seventy death is very sure.
This suggests that in the end the popularity of the Princess will guarantee her a welcome return to the centre of monarchy, with her perhaps living until the age of 73.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

A dark and deceitful reformation

(The link in this blog post has been corrected. It originally directed to one of Gary's own excellent posts, and not Dennis'.)

When a sect goes belly up, people are affected. The toll on lives can be incredible, particularly if the group has been "high demand." The tragedy of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) illustrates it well; a sect that self-mutilated itself in the process of what was euphemistically called 'reform'. Reform it was not, it was convulsive deconstruction fuelled by a small cadre of remarkably inept senior ministers from above, and from the get-go it expressed itself in a blinding contempt of those lower in the pecking order, the grass roots membership. To the everlasting shame of the broader Christian community, the 'reform' process was greeted with accolades and applause. They only saw what they wanted to see.

The irony is that there were many who had long advocated genuine reform, real reform, reform from below. That kind of reform is not arbitrarily imposed, it is negotiated. That kind of reform empowers, not disempowers, and it moves the centre of gravity away from those who sit high on the hierarchical hog, downwards toward the people who actually make up the church. That kind of reform finds  - must find - its mandate among the people who sit in the pews.

Those who advocated that kind of reformation quickly found out that they were unwelcome. As the new leadership dug in, anyone not following the party line ('shut up and do what you're told') was labelled a troublemaker.

I thought I was 'over' all this, but then I read Dennis Diehl's latest contribution on Gary's blog. I wish those moronic evangelical enablers who clapped and hooted at the news that the WCG had been 'won over' would read it. I wish somebody would wave a printout under el presidente Joe Tkach's nose. Tkach, the unelected, unmandated 'president for life' of the downsized rump sect that inherited (and squandered) the assets. Joe who justifies his North Korean-style grip on power by the laughable expedient of calling it episcopal.

The crazy thing is that this whole thing was hardly rocket science. Anyone who has read Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle could have done better. That Joe's throne now sits on top of a much, much smaller pile of turtles than his predecessors is beside the point.

Oh well, it's history, though tens of thousands of people still live with the effects. Just ask Dennis.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Staycation Reading

Sci-Fi and theology are both wonderfully creative pursuits, so much so that it's sometimes hard to tell them apart. With the holidays here...

(Digression alert: holidays, not vacation. To have a vacation you need to follow the etymology and vacate your normal place of residence, pulling up stakes and going somewhere else for the duration. Many of us prefer a relaxed staycation, where you blob out in the comfort of home and hearth, only disappearing for day trips. And yes, staycation has recently entered the Oxford, Collins and Chambers dictionaries. Who said the world isn't progressing?)

(Digression alert 2: talking about things getting better, I really want to read Steven Pinker's latest book The Better Angels of Our Nature (UK subtitle: "The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes.") Despite what most baby boomers will tell you, the rising generations aren't really out of control and taking us all you-know-where in a hand-cart. But it's probably a bit on the worthy and earnest side for summer holiday reading. Once back at the chalk face though, a liberal dose of positivity about human nature could be exactly what's needed.) 

... there's the chance to rip into a few good books. Or eBooks if you prefer. For those who love space opera, Michael Cobley's Humanity's Fire series might be worth a try. I'm into the first one at the moment, Seeds of Earth. Given that Asimov will never pass this way again, it's not half bad.

Mark S. Smith's Memoirs of God is more biblical studies than theology, if you want to make that distinction, but it certainly has theological implications. This is - or should be - Old Testament Literacy 101, boiling down two earlier books meant for an academic audience into something that pulls it together for the non-specialist. The issue here is the Bible and history, and why the former isn't quite the latter. If you could boil down even just chapter one, then spike the holy water with it down at St. Columba's, then Steven Pinker would have even more reason to rejoice.

Whatever your literary preferences these holidays, happy reading.

Amazon links:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Seeds of Earth (Humanity's Fire, Book 1)
Memoirs of God

Happy New Year

We say it every year, and sometimes even rashly make resolutions. Truth to tell, 2012 will be as unpredictable and random as any year before it. Yet we live, as optimistic creatures, in hope. Surely that's the way it should be. Except of course for Calvinists and fundamentalist doomsdayers. Bah, humbug!

Apparently Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell, is providing unofficial endorsement for Newt Gingrich, the Republican hopeful. American politics puzzles me, but surely in any sane world, wouldn't Liberty's support mean tens of thousands of supporters immediately bolting from the Gingrich camp and signing up for Mitt Romney?

Meanwhile Samoans (citizens of Samoa, not nearby American Samoa) have proven once again what a very silly doctrine seventh-day sabbatarianism is. The Samoans have put yet anothing ding in the dateline, and Friday disappeared. This, of course, is problematic for Seventh-day Adventists, and presumably the few remaining devotees of Armstrongism in that part of the world. Do they worship on the new Saturday sabbath, or keep the seven-day cycle intact and so turn up for services on what is now Sunday, along with wicked Methodists and others? And if they do, will they share in the Mark of the Beast?

This is probably just as much a problem, technically speaking, for Calvinistic first-day sabbatarians who believe that only Sunday has upstairs endorsement because of an apparent Sunday resurrection. But they're probably all too busy spoiling other people's fun to notice.